Social Justice Issues and the Valuation of People as Knowledgeable
In this article I am going to try and identify certain social justice issues involved with valuing the individual outside of the formal education context. I will be dealing with the premise of what a just society is, and suggesting that if a person has some knowledge which is prevented from being valued then they are being excluded from society. Their being is withheld from acknowledgement, and by virtue of that, their liberty is taken from them as they are prevented from engaging in and with a community of peers.
In considering what a just society is, we must think about freedom of action, freedom of thought and freedom to associate with a community of peers. A just society supports the individual in balance with the greatest reach of such freedoms, and the just society benefits from the externalities (indirect effects) which come of the individual’s involvements in activities such as contribution to a field of thinking and/or creation of artifacts.
Liberty, the Individual and the Social Society
In his work ‘On Liberty’ John Stuart Mill famously wrote “…over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. If we assume the values which come of this axiom, then we must seek to value each individual as sovereign and in doing so, acknowledge them as knowledgeable through their experience. I will be borrowing points from Mill to build this argument. In the opening of his book we can read of his aims:
“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else.
The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. “
I would like to consider these ideas in terms of knowledge, meaning making, social inclusion, and the freedoms we require in tangible and practical form for a society to be a social endeavour.
To help us get at the root meaning of ‘society’, we can examine the etymology of the words social and society. The word social is documented in the late 15th century relating “devoted to or relating to home life” and as “living with others”. It hails from Middle French (14th century) and directly from Latin socialis which relates “of companionship, of allies; united, living with others; of marriage, conjugal”. Also from socius meaning “companion, ally”.
The word society can be traced to the 1530s meaning “companionship, friendly association with others,” from Old French societe “company” (12th century., Modern French société), from Latin societatem (nominative societas) “fellowship, association, alliance, union, community”, and from socius “companion”.
These meanings provide a backdrop to which we can refer when we are orientating ourselves in the exploration of freedoms within society. Here I will be viewing society as a social enterprise, drawing upon the etymological meaning to provide a concrete foundation upon which to build a line of thought.
If we are to consider the value of being recognised as having some kind of knowledge (Descartes suggested ‘I think therefore I am’), then we can take from that recognition a starting point to identify the freedoms necessary to be a part of a just society. It follows that any system which holds back the valuation of the individual as knowledgeable is to also holding back the liberty of that person thus visiting a harm on them through impoverishment of opportunity. We can recap Mill’s writing to contextualise this:
“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant “
The Outcomes of an Institutional System of Education
We must recognize that amongst the manifestations which come from an institutional system of educational validation are both the important social function of quality assurance for the facilitation of a market place (for example, that someone has the necessary and proficient skills needed to drive a bus safely) and a ‘license raj’ which encloses knowledge and meaning in such a way as only the chosen few are validated and allowed to take part in a range of intellectual endeavours.
From this we can start to build up a multi-layered picture of how the institutionalisation of knowledge and meaning plays out in society. When the economic and financial aspects of education eclipse it’s function to nurture and value individuals within a society so that they may participate in cultural activities, it moves from being a public good to being a business.
The real world outcomes of the institutional system of educational validation should not be considered in isolation or in binaries but always in the plural sense. Any institutionally administered system becomes something which serves multiple purposes, holding multiple meanings to the many people who encounter the effects of it.
Here I am interested in addressing the Educational-Industrial complex, where the principles of knowledge, teaching, learning and meaning making are controlled in society by an administrative system of management which privileges the finances over the public enterprise.
If we take the meaning, and thus aim, of society from the etymological root, as one which is of “fellowship, association, alliance, union, community”, then in this perceived ethic we can assert the system of cultural validation of learning as a necessarily public, societal function. It is an organ of society which is created to develop a recognition of what is there in the landscape as much as an infrastructure to draw out and nurture the possibilities in individuals.
We must consider whether the primary aim of the educational vocation is to value and advance knowledge, or to control what knowledge is validated and credited to whom. This thought casts a light on the necessary analysis of what gives back the greater value to society:
- The acknowledgement and nurturing of people who have the skills and knowledge so that they can take part in the means of cultural production
- The creation of an excluding natural monopoly to centralise, administrate and determine the activities which people can take part in
If we are to take Mill’s thoughts on liberty seriously, we can see that preventing access to the means of acknowledgement creates a natural monopoly that acts as a bottleneck and will exclude people from being valued, taking part in a community of peers, developing human capabilities, engaging in meaning making in their own world, and taking their relative place in an inclusive economy.
If we examine in this context with the axiom “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”, the removing of the individual from access to the peer community which forms the basis of knowledge building and meaning making is illegitimate for part of the sovereignty of the mind has been enclosed by a technocratic system keeping the individual from engaging in their own thoughts and potentials.
The Message is the Medium: Outside of these Walls it is Not Valid
We next move onto his other proviso: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant “
Can we in some way see how an open and free education system, might bring about more harm than good, and thus warrant the controlling of knowledge and thinking as a technology? Harold Innes examines monopolies of knowledge in his famous book the Bias of Communication. In it Marshall McLuhan – student of Harold Innes – writes the preface and highlights his interest in how we might perceive the university:
“For anyone acquainted with poetry since Baudelaire and with painting since Cezanne, the alter world of Harold A. Innis is quite readily intelligible. He brought their kinds of contemporary awareness of the electric age to organize the data of the historian and the social scientist… He expects the reader to make discovery after discovery that he himself had missed. His view of the departmentalized specialisms of our Universities as ignoble monopolies of knowledge is expressed on page 194:
Finally we must keep in mind the limited role of Universities and recall the comment that ‘the whole external history of science is a history of the resistance of academies and Universities to the progress of knowledge.’”
Marshall McLuhan is a well known philosopher of communication theory. His work is considered one of the cornerstones of media theory. He coined the expressions “the medium is the message” and the “global village”, and he predicted the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented.
Here I want to focus on “the medium is the message”. He spent a great deal of effort explaining that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. In terms of knowledge and who gets to make meaning in society, we can see that a message like “Outside of these Walls it is Not Valid” sets up a hierarchy which produces a teleology (an account of a given thing’s end or purpose) that imposes a power base where knowledge flows outwards through gatekeepers rather than acknowledging that knowledge is diffuse, held by everyone, and that anyone can create valid meaning through encountering the universe via the reasoning process.
In the educational context, knowledge is the medium, and in terms of who gets to talk about knowledge, the message that institutions dominantly project outwards is that ‘meaning gets made inside the walls’, and unless you are a part of the community then the ideas presented are intellectually unvalidated. Overwhelmingly, and increasingly, it is finance which decides whether someone is a part of the intellectual academic community.
This smacks of a self fulfilling secular version of the dogma known as the divine right of kings – a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. The divine right of kings puts forward that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God; thus the monarch is not subject to the will of the people.
John Locke famously wrote a counterpoint to this line of thinking suggesting that it cannot be correct because the theory holds that every person is born a slave to the natural born kings. Locke refused to accept such a theory because of his belief in reason and in the capability of every person to virtuously govern themselves according to God’s law.
Putting aside the doctrine of monarchy and church – as we are concerned with reason and knowledge in the educational context – we might formulate our encounters with the institutional validation of knowledge thus:
The meaning making power of the institutions of educational accreditation are not subject to intellectual authority outside of the institutional spaces. Legitimacy comes from within these institutions, and these institutions have the sole rights to acknowledging whether a body of work is sufficiently reliable to warrant being recognised as a thinker in this area. Thus universities (and other higher education bodies) are not subject to peer review outside of the peer review community which they decide and gatekeep.
This perspective holds that every person is not intellectually capable of grasping the tenets of knowledge, laid down in subject areas over millennia and diverse settings, unless the individual has been taught that knowledge from within the institution and subsequently credited as having learned what they have been taught by the institutions which make the claim for higher intellectual authority.
Philosophically speaking, if we take the basis of our encounters with the universe as the source of our knowledge – and gain knowledge through engaging with the first principles and reason, then everyone has the capability to learn a given subject and contribute to the field of thought given the right circumstances.
The only rational standpoint is to acknowledge that there are certain common instruments for knowledge building available to every human being; that using these – our senses and mind – to engage in knowledge building is a part of every person’s common experience. Not only that, but also, we must acknowledge the availability of textbooks, libraries, knowledge tools and means of communication in our formulating of whether someone can access sufficient information resources to engage in, and contribute to a field of thinking.
With the natural world, libraries, bookshops, worldwide web, computing equipment, printers, telecommunications and open educational resources, it is certainly true that available to the common person in the United Kingdom (as I speak from a situated context) are more information tools and resources than were available centuries, even decades, ago.
In considering the above lines of thought:
- should an individual invest sufficient amounts of time, energy and activity in learning, digesting and observing
- should an individual invest in the time, energy, and activity in formulating a cohesive presentation of their work
- should an individual have invested in learning a body of knowledge laid down as a part of the public domain
It constitutes a social justice issue that:
- such an individual is not allowed access to a community of peers to discuss, contrast, contribute to and learn from
- such an individual is not given the opportunity to have their work valued and thus be valued for their work and skills
- such an individual does not gain access to opportunities to be involved in the production of meaning or artifacts